Straight White Privileged Male

Over the last several months, maybe years, there have been different fronts where I, upper-middle-class-straight-white-married-with-kids-and-a-mortgage-man, have had to look in the mirror and realise the man standing there does not see things that should have been seen.

The first were the astounding number of homeless people in my city. I routinely walk downtown and the amount of obviously homeless people is amazing to me. At first, I found myself crossing to the other side of the street (Pharisee!) to avoid a confrontation. But one afternoon, I walked past a man slumped on the sidewalk and he stopped me. I don’t know if this is right or wrong, but overtime I’ve found myself evaluating the person asking me for money. I don’t really know what criteria I use to determine who gets the dollars in my pocket, but I look them in the eye and make a determination. Sometimes I don’t have any change, but they’re more than happy to take an American Spirit. This guy, though, was different than a lot of the people I’d run into – he truly was slumped and emotion was showing on his face. He’d heard of a church that was offering help and asked me directions – I wasn’t sure which church he was talking about, so I pointed out the ones I knew nearby. He was broken by addiction and couldn’t get help – I asked him about the crisis center nearby and if he’d been there, but there was apparently bad blood. I knelt by him and he took my hand and he told me bits of his story, how he was trying to get back on his feet. I got a little weepy listening to him and I didn’t know what to do. So I offered him the money I had but he shook me off, even while still grasping my hand. I wished him well and turned to walk away feeling the shame of this man trail me as I asked myself what else was I supposed to do? How is it, that in America, there are people left on the streets? How is it that we can’t find a way to help these people out? How is it that some of these people refuse to be helped? How is it that I can continue to live my relatively extravagant lifestyle and not find some way to do something more to help these people other than a few bucks and smokes?


The next was my brother re-coming out as a homosexual and getting a divorce from his wife. He had been “rehabilitated” by the church – we’d successfully “prayed away the gay”! And here he was, a few years later, done fighting against the person that he was and always had been. He was tired of hiding and wanted to find the relief of just simply being who he was without fear. The first time he came home after the divorce, my wife and I were in a much different place spiritually than we had been and we sat around a campfire in our backyard under the autumn stars beaming their own special heat and I just tried to reaffirm my love for my brother – that no matter what, I was not going to stop loving him. Right around that time we bought a rainbow flag to fly – our own little testament to the story that we loved my brother no matter what.

The next time my brother was in town, the shooting at a night club in Orlando happened and I got my first true realisation of the hate my brother’s community faced. Previously it had been the simple condemnation he had faced by my conservative upbringing – hate the sin, love the sinner kind of shit [that, in and of itself, was hurtful enough]. We spoke about the shooting the morning after it happened, briefly, but we had our nephews’ birthday parties to attend, so we spent the rest of the day with my sister and her family, and at the end of the day, my brother’s one persistent thought was: no one once brought the shooting up. It was as if, in our straight, white [well, my sister’s brown, so that’s not an entirely fair characterization], conservative religious family, there was no thought to the hateful killing of precious lives in Orlando. Not one thought. And that was the realisation – I, too, had not given it much thought the rest of the day, but my brother and his community via social media were actively mourning – loving, kind, caring people were checking in with him from a thousand miles away to see how he had been affected. And straight-white-privileged-male me [who thought he was “woke”] was hardly awake to it. How can I sit and consume media and our culture so passively while there are so many in the LGBT community affected daily by hate? How can I proclaim that I love my brother if all I do is hang a rainbow flag and sit smugly beside it in my cult of suburbia, cut off from the real hurt and pain these people experience, all the while complaining about my life and how I have it so bad [because of my own self-inflicted wounds, nonetheless]?


When the first very public incident of a black man being killed by the police came to light, I heard about it because it was a thing, but didn’t think too much more about it. Living in MT, the ratio of white to black/brown/yellow is pretty ridiculous. Seeing a black person in MT is not necessarily a daily occurrence. And so, as the deaths continued to pile up in the media and it gained more and more traction, as #BlackLiveMatter gained traction, I groaned, incredulous, when the #AllLivesMatter movement tried to take up the ground that #BlackLivesMatter was trying to gain. But, again, all of it was at arms length away. It was so much easier to look at it from a distance and sadly shake my head. Because, what else can I do? What more can I do than sit on my hands? What more should I do than silently condemn the obvious systemic racism still pervasive in this country?

The Brilliance has a beautiful song called Does Your Heart Break? [link] I was doing the dishes on a Saturday morning, listening to the album that song is on quite loudly and suddenly, in the midst of this beautiful, song, it wrenched my heart with these words:

When the man said,
you are choking me
And he cried out,
I cannot breathe
Did your heart break?
Does your heart break now?

I can’t find it for certain, but if I had to guess, this would be referencing Eric Garner – choked to death by an NYPD officer.  And, again, I had heard the story, but I hadn’t let it in – I hadn’t let it affect me. But when I heard that song, it made me as those questions again and again. What else can I do?


Then, the #MeToo movement started up and #TimesUp – a well deserved war against the tirade of terrible men doing terrible things to women because of their power. As Harvey Weinstein was exposed and the dominoes of powerful men began to fall and the stories started coming out [newsflash: it’s not just white men or heterosexual men – it appears to be NEARLY EVERY FREAKING MAN] the mirror became an ugly thing for me to look into. The terrible recounting of over 150 women [last I saw reported] who were sexually abused as little girls  and teenagers by Larry Nassar for US Gymnastics. The obtuse efforts by Aziz Ansari to get laid. The sad, pathetic efforts of James Franco to take advantage of his position at his school to put aspiring women in compromising situations. The lewd behavior of Louis CK. The forceful [and apparently, obliviousness] of Charlie Rose. These men weren’t just horny. They were getting off on the power they held over those perceived to be weaker than they.

As I read the stories of these and more encounters, the comments on those stories, listened to the perspectives of women in my life, I again began to ask the questions I had been previously asking: how is it that I can live my life the way I do and not see the consequences others have to face? How is it that I can continue to quarantine myself in my pretty little self-sufficient life without fear of retribution from almost no one else? How is it that I can not be more aware of the pain, struggle, and suffering that other peoples in “lesser” positions than me?

As I sat and asked myself those questions, I realised, looking in the mirror that I’ve never done enough to stir a change. It doesn’t matter where I live – I have a voice that can speak out against injustice and a body with hands and feet that can reach out and help in whatever way necessary.

And, listen: I’m not trying to be “white woke guy”. Being woke isn’t my responsibility. My responsibility is valuing and fighting for every single life. Finding ways to help the homeless. Standing up for and loving and respecting lesbians, gays, bisexuals, and transgenders. Embracing and fighting for the equal standing of black men and women and children. And looking women in the eye with respect and standing up for them whenever I see a situation when someone is trying to take advantage of them.

Nothing Changes If Nothing Changes

When Children stick their hand down a narrow cookie jar they can’t get  their full fist out and start crying. Drop a few treats and you will get it out! Curb your desire – don’t set your heart on so many things and you will get what you need.”

– Epictetus, from Discourses 3.9.22

Curb your desire. I live so self-unaware, I am not even certain what it is I want – but I act on my impulses most of the time without thinking. Am I frustrated? I’ll smoke a cigarette. Am I aroused? I’ll masturbate. Am I stressed out? I’ll have a drink. Is there a roll or three leftover after dinner? I’ll eat them all.

What do I want?

I want to break the barriers that hold me back. I want to be a man of integrity, peace, and patience. I want to be in shape and healthy. I want to create things and understand how things work. I want to be educated and well read. I want to be passionate about living life fully, well, and joyfully. Yet I want to show restraint with the indulgences life offers, while still enjoying those things.

I need to think differently about the things I am about to do. And I need to say no to myself more. Curb your desire.

—–
I wrote all of these things earlier this morning after finding the quote online from Lifehacker [link]. What I find so frustrating about my life is how I can go from one sensation [lust] to another [determination to live a better life] and then to another [having a drink when I come home from work ’cause it feels good].

I want to ask the question, “When will this all be different?” but I know the answer: when I choose to make things different. When will I break barriers? When I choose to break those barriers. I am my own worst enemy and my own best friend. I am the only one responsible for my success. I’ve been down this path before, writing something very similar just over month ago:

I just want to sit in the dark and hide from my life. There are certain bright spots that I allow to warm me, but it seems more than ever that there is a large darkness permeating and enveloping my life. It is cold, this darkness, like the bottom of a cave, far away from sun and warmth. But I’ve just put another jacket on, one after another, and some wool socks, some long johns, a hat. I grow a beard to try and keep warm and pretend that I have not created a dark cave to dwell in.

I am tired. But, as the quote goes, I can’t get any rest because I’ve been doing nothing – and I can’t quit doing nothing to get any rest. It’s funny – I used to not have time for anything. I was always working, always creating, always performing that I rarely would come home and find myself with nothing to do. And now, that is where I am, I come home from work, it’s 4:30 pm, my kids are off playing, my son is napping still, and though the house is a disaster, I have nothing to do. And so I do nothing. I sit outside in the cold and I smoke cigarettes and sip a scotch. And then it simply progresses until at the end of the night, I go to bed drunk, cold, rank with cigarette smoke.

Last night, I found myself frustrated after dinner because my wife had started helping our middle child with her math homework and I was doing the dishes and then my wife turned to her phone and instantly shut out everything around her. Middle Child was asking her a question repeatedly and wasn’t getting a response, so I started to help her, but I wasn’t familiar with where she was at and I just wanted to finish the dishes so they could be done. It’s so dumb now, but I was a little bit drunk which probably just incensed my frustration. And so, I tried to bring up my frustration to my wife and she ripped me for being a jerk [which I probably was]. But I was frustrated. I responded that I wouldn’t bring up how I was feeling any more, and her response to that was, “Good.” Which is exactly the opposite of what she’s been asking me to do. So I told her to fuck off. In front of the kids. (And of course, my three year old immediately was like, “Yeah, fuck off mommy.”). Damn it.

And we spent the rest of the night separate – me fuming while she watched tv. Me vowing to never speak of my feelings again – her I don’t know. And so, by this morning, the opening of this writ is how I am feeling. Weepy as I write this; the breath in my lungs surging as I smoke a cigarette; the shame of my failures staining my shirt as a sign to all. The other night, my oldest noticed the sadness delivered from my eyes. And it made it worse – I can’t hide it from my kids now? The only thing I’ve ever been consistent and good at is hiding. I have always been able to hide: from my parents, from my siblings, from my wife, from my in-laws, from my kids, from my friends, from my bosses and co-workers, from the seeing public. I have hidden in various forms from these people, some more than others, some less than others. But I hide because it keeps me safe. But that hiding has turned into hiding from myself too – that’s why I get drunk, so I don’t have to feel. That’s why I smoke, so I get that puff of “satisfaction” to cover up my own smell.

The scene that C. S. Lewis depicts in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, when Eustace, turned into a dragon with a deep lust for gold, faces Aslan the lion has always struck me savagely. And it’s because I am Eustace, covered in layer after layer of scales. As Aslan shreds skin after skin with his strong, terrible claws, the core of my being shakes, begging, hoping, yet distancing myself from the request to be made new.

But of course, now I find myself in a place where I am questioning the very existence of God, at least of the god I grew up believing in. That’s why the idea of Aslan was such a tremendous impact in all of the Narnia stories – the idea of Jesus physically altering the universe made so much sense. That was why I could pray, “Lord, tear these scales from my body” and hope desperately that by some miracle I would be made whole. All those times I cried. All those times I believed I heard him say something. All those things I told people that he had revealed to me. All the while not actually doing anything myself to change. What a load of shit.

The one thing my mother told me when she first separated from my father was, “Nothing changes if nothing changes.” She was referring to him, and I was pretty oblivious to the realities of my dad, who he was, how he behaved, how he functioned and lived. To this day, I still don’t really know. But the little that I do know I have seen in myself in some of these stupid fights my wife and I have had. Me vowing not to talk about my feelings any more. Me not saying anything for months and then blowing up in a mild instance. Me hiding.

So, the long story short is this: I am not ok. I have not been ok for a long while. But no one is going to save me. No one is going to fix me. I am the only one who can do this. I am the only one who can change. I know that I am a person who deeply longs for order and direction. I am the one who has to create that order and walk in that direction. And I can be the person who does that. I can pull myself up by my bootstraps, shed the heavy coats that I’ve buried myself in, and begin the long climb out of the deep, dark, damp cave. Toward the light. Into the light.

—–
I’ve been writing some form of that for the last 20 years [for that I blame religion]. I’ve believed for so much of my life that I am not good enough. And it’s just bullshit. Believing that I am not good enough has made me endure 20 years of failure without change, hoping that some thing was going to save me. The only thing that’s different is that last paragraph. I’ve never really believed I can be the one to instigate change in my life. And you know what? I can and I will. And I am.

jsf

Re-introducation to Algebra

René Descartes

I hardly remember doing algebra in school [is that middle school?], but something last week came through me when I was once again [for the 50th-thousandth time] exploring the different variance in programming languages and reading different blogs by programmers [https://blog.codinghorror.com/ for one] and pondering the idea of computer science I stumbled upon the reality of one thing I have struggled with in learning to code proficiently is understanding variables [see link] and how they’re very similar [maybe I’m technically way off base here, but it’s how I’ve just now related to it] equations in algebra. I hadn’t thought of algebra since the last time I had to do a math problem – I did fine in math in school, but I never applied myself and never learned the purposes of it. But through reading some other books about the science behind the earth and the universe all of the sudden, I realised, math is something I want to invest in.

So, I jumped on Khan’s Academy and watched his intro videos on algebra – giving the ancient history of it. One of the most fascinating things that I came away from those videos was the idea that Rene Descartes had was to figure out how you could physically map out equations on a Cartesian plane [I’m clearly making this much more simple than the reality of his work] and for the first time, plotting out x and y coordinates made sense. And it was a light bulb above the head moment. I know that doesn’t explain everything, but for me it was, yes, math is important for the entirety of all of our existence.

What I am looking for now is more knowledge – I want to be able to make math applicable to the rest of my life and make use of this important fundamental tool.

So I forged into the first quiz and somewhat surprisingly had no issues. I went through the second quiz and had no problems with that either.

[quick: Evaluate 1/4c + 3d when c=6 and d=7. See - not so difficult, right!?]

The third pre-quiz is where I ran into a small stumble and that was just because I made minor miscalculation – but that reminded me of the concentration required for the progress to be evident. And instead of swaying me, it inspired me. I want to develop a better ability to concentrate on difficult tasks [this mini-rant is for a different subject, but our society’s #DistractMe culture is a great disservice to the growth and development of good productive people].

One of the things that I have found out about myself in this season – my mid-thirties, husband, father, worker, provider – is that I’m aching for knowledge in a way I never have. Even when I went back to college in my mid-twenties, I didn’t really thirst for knowledge the way that I do  now. There is a part of me that wishes I had been this thirsty when I was 15 – who knows what I would have done with my life then. I suppose there is a reason I wasn’t interested then – it’s probably not a great reason, though.

So here’s to the exploration, the learning, the development, the growth – here’s to the maths!

jsf

Breaking Barriers

All around me I see world changers mixed in with the observers. The creators and the consumers. The givers and the partakers. The selfless and the selfish. I have always had a problem with standing by and watching. I mean, I enjoy watching sometimes, but mostly I want to be performing. That was one of the reasons I was so inspired by being the music leader for a church for nine years after leaving college – I got to be onstage, performing, leading people in the ritual of singing. I got to push the boundaries of what was acceptable in church music, sampling secular music to show the deep emotion evident in art that wasn’t written “in the name of the lord.” And it was exhilarating, until it was exhausting. Performing 6 days a week, sometimes two and three times a day, all the practices, preparation, lack of varietal input all pushed me to a place where I was so spent I didn’t care about it any longer with the same passion.

Conveniently, I still didn’t quit, waiting out the hand of another to push me to resignation. I got to use that as a sort of martyrdom [there’s plenty else to this story that I am certain will come along soon enough] even though I was so tired from all of the performance I didn’t even have the energy to pick my guitar up out of its case. It was around that time I quit writing and started reading more and more. It was around that time I discovered that I didn’t have any real answers, that I hadn’t attained any true knowledge I could rely on, and that I needed to stop creating and performing because it was not healthy for me any longer. That move, while needed, ended up taking over too much. Instead of consuming for a little while, all I did was either consume or not participate at all. I entered a semi-blissful state where I had no fucks to give and so I gave none and I received nothing in return except for drunkenness and stale cigarette smoke.

So, I decided to change that, but it is difficult to change something you have allowed to become so ingrained in your existence. Creating is hard work, especially when you haven’t done it in a long while. Your fingers blister like they did when you first learned to play the guitar 20 years ago. The poetry of emotion that used to rise so easily sounds tripe. You sit down to write something out and realise you are going to just go outside and smoke that cigarette even though you’re trying to quit. And then you look in the mirror and search for motivation – what has pushed me all this time before I was washed up and alone?

It is then, after a few hours or days or weeks that I notice some of the little notes I have left myself, scattered around my office, loose in my bag, crumpled in my pocket.

Do the work.

“Nothing will work unless you do.”
– Maya Angelou

Get up and move. DO. Do not sit.

What are you doing?

“Know the true value of time; snatch, seize, and enjoy every moment of it. No idleness, no laziness, no procrastination; never put off till tomorrow what you can do today.”
– Lord Chesterfield

What am I doing? What do I have to do? Do it.

“Everyone thinks of changing the world, but no one thinks of changing himself.”
– Leo Tolstoy

And then, there are three statements I wrote down straight on my desk to remind myself:
I want to see what I can do.
I want to BREAK BARRIERS.
What am I building?

A few weeks ago I went to a Foo Fighters concert – something I was really excited for and had bought tickets six months prior. The anticipation to see Dave Grohl and the Foo perform was overwhelming and then, there, in the midst of the fog and the lights and the bass pounding into my chest and the screams of the consumers I found myself not wanting to be there, at least not in the crowd. I wanted to be the creator, not the consumer. I wanted to be the giver, not the partaker. I wanted to be the selfless and not the selfish. I wanted to be the world changer, not the observer. I’m not writing about being Dave Grohl on stage in front of 10,000 people. I just want to be the one bringing the content, in whatever form that is – music, words, problem solving, applications. I want to be a bringer of life. I do not want to just be a consumer of life.

jsf

Fresh Starts

There is something about Mondays. A few years ago, I began adopting Sunday as the last day of the week, rather than the first – I don’t know that anyone had intentionally taught me the idea that Sunday was day one, but that was how I had operated. Any way, I began treating Monday as the start of my week and since then, Mondays have always been my day of embarking on new things, or the day to start over, the day to try again. If I had tried to quit smoking and screwed up and had a smoke on Wednesday, I’d just keep smoking until the next Monday I felt like quitting again, because it made no sense to me [I know, that doesn’t make sense]. And so, this year, 2018, Monday just so happens to be the first day of the year [it is so arbitrary – who decided that January should be the beginning? Why not July? And please don’t tell me it’s the Church that is responsible. I am certain it is.] – what luck for me and my weird obsession with starting on Mondays.

I’ve never been a huge resolution fan, but as I examine the word this morning, I am intrigued. Resolution comes from the word resolve – Middle English, from the Latin “resolvere“:

to loosen, dissolve/release.

Basically, a resolution is the loosing of something holding you back. Smoking, drinking, electronic entertainment.

But I also want to add so much to my life: knowledge, ability. I want to explore science and math and programming. I want to increase my skill at wood-working and creating useful utilities. I want to learn more about computers and teach my children about them too. And I want to play and write and record music. There are so many more beautiful and beneficial things I can be doing with my time.

Farewell,

jsf